The selling point for “The Sapphires” isn’t the lively soundtrack so much as the people singing it: Four Aboriginal woman hired to sing soul music to troops in Vietnam in 1968, a year after being denied Australian citizenship. Ostensibly the Australian “Dreamgirls,” director Wayne Blair’s neatly calibrated crowdpleaser stands out for the sole reason that it’s the first of its kind, just as the Aboriginal quartet the movie takes as its real-life inspiration. Marred by excessive sentiment, it has a buoyancy and a hook that makes it stand out — but they’re elements that would help it kill on Broadway (as it already has on the Australian stage) a lot better than it does onscreen.
Based on a true story and co-written by one of the offspring of the original singers, “The Sapphires” follows a trio of sisters and their cousin coping with racist sentiments as they attempt to practice their musical skills around town. It’s there that they meet Dave (Chris O’Dowd), an amusingly reckless Irish pianist struck by the sisters’ talent and driven to help them land an audition for the Vietnam gig. Eager to escape their surroundings, they quickly agree and land the job with ease thanks to a naturally vibrant stage presence. Watching “The Sapphires” weave through its musical numbers, one can envision how they could dominate a physical space, but Blair’s sugarcoated narrative glosses over the possibility of deepening the emotional value of the group’s achievement.
Instead, the Sapphires’ rise is an oddly by-the-numbers affair. Under Dave’s close watch, the sisters each fill their own spotlight: Pack leader Gail (Deborah Mailman) dominates the stage alongside snarky lead singer Julie (Jessica Mauboy), backup vocalist Gail (Deborah Mailman) and their long-lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), taken from them by a white family in their youth. The historical backdrop more or less fades away after the first act to make way for the bubbly montages of the newly titled Sapphires’ happy-go-lucky times on the road, an adventure interspersed with any number of familiar cover songs rendered under hot lights and curvy dance moves.
The Sapphires sound fine and move better, but the movie never manages to keep pace with its theatrical dimensions. With the women going through various dramas in Vietnam, finding romance among the troops and exploring new possibilities beyond the limitations of their old community, “The Sapphires” positions itself in the tradition of “Almost Famous,” but fails to make the characters into fully believable creations rather than well-lit props. Even O’Dowd, the frequent source of comic relief, never rises above the level of a one-dimensional goofball to offset the aggressive Sapphires’ collective energy.
As tensions threaten to pull the group apart, “The Sapphires” grows cheesier as it moves along, inevitably reaching a teary climax that fizzles right when it should pop. Sure, the treacly dialogue is turned modestly charming by the movie’s rampant musicality, and “Samson and Delilah” director Warwick Thornton’s gorgeous cinematography infuses the images with a bright palette reminiscent of Vincent Minelli’s best work. However, there’s a constant tension between the serious material and its generally tame, underwhelming execution. Even the songs, a series of catchy, undeniably heartfelt melodies, contain no special bells or whistles. Seen live, “The Sapphires” would make a delightful concert, but the movie squeezes that potential into an extended trailer for the core product.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company bought “The Sapphires” ahead of Cannes and will likely try to play up its unique hook for broad commercial appeal. It has major potential for a strong performance in limited release, but it’s too early to tell whether the inevitable Weinstein Company awards push will face stiff competition.